It was a Saturday morning and both of my parents were at work.
There was a litter of kittens and they had been born directly under my parents bedroom.
It was the Spring I was eleven, and I had gone into the room to be with Nina, our maid, who was in the process of making my parents’ bed and of whom I was quite fond. I liked talking to Nina. We were both movie buffs and we enjoyed acting out the scenes for each other, of movies we had seen, although in the 1950’s, in Savannah, we couldn’t sit in the same movie theatre.
That’s when I heard the kittens mewing.
I think I must have expressed my desire to crawl under the house and see the kittens because I remember Nina admonishing me in a dire warning not to do it. She said if the mother cat caught the scent of a human on the kittens, she would abandon them.
That was of little concern to me, as during the previous ten seconds I had already formulated an idea in my head that I would crawl under the house, get the kittens and then I would take care of them. The only other person in the house was my grandmother, who had been confined to her bed or in her wheelchair for the past eight years and need not be consulted in such matters.
I had seen the mother cat several times over the past few weeks–a large orange and white female with a sagging belly, She had been quickly entering and leaving the underneath part of the house through a small opening in the brick foundation which had been designed to allow access to plumbers or others needing to repair the water pipes. I had even crawled in and out of there a few times myself over the years. It seemed to me that there was something not altogether honest and forthright about her. There was something sneaky about the orange cat–about the way she moved– and in my mind, that gave me all the license I needed to steal her babies.
Heedless of Nina’s warning and reluctant to venture into the darkness under the house alone, I called up my old friend Hughie and told him about the kittens. In a few minutes he came over and the two of us stood on a step stool in my parents’ closet and got my father’s long silver flashlight off the shelf.
Then with no one to stop us, we went out the back door, onto the screen porch, out the screen door and down the steps to the sidewalk alongside the house. Then we went around the corner of the house and knelt down beside the little opening. Since I held the flashlight, I was the first one to crawl through. Hughie followed me in. The soil under the house seemed to be sandy and dry, unlike the moist black dirt that was in the backyard and posed no problems for us even though there was only enough room for us to crawl on our hands and knees to where the mewing sounds were coming from. In about one minute we were there. I shined the light into the blackness. The mother cat had chosen to give birth in the brick enclosure under my parents bedroom and with Hughie following me, we crawled over and reached down and scooped up the two mewing kittens and now crawling on our knees and one hand, we carefully carried them back outside and stood up. One was black and one was tiger-striped. Neither one of them had their eyes open yet.
Neither one of them would ever see their mother.
I took the black one and named him Panther. Hughie kept the striped one and named his Tiger. Hughie took his home. Nina was in the kitchen ironing and gave me a stern look when I came through the back door. I took Panther into my parents bedroom and placed him on a white towel inside a wicker laundry basket. He was barely able to crawl. Nina told me I would have to feed him with a doll’s baby bottle, so I went around the corner to Mrs. Hirsch’s Dime Store and bought a baby bottle for a doll. Nina filled it up with milk and I knelt down next to the basket and held the bottle while the little kitten drank from it. After fifteen or twenty minutes, I got bored and went and did something else. Later that afternoon I returned, checked on the kitten , fed him again and went away. The next day I woke up, checked on the kitten, fed him and went over to Hughie’s house. Tiger had died. We played kickball in the driveway for a while, had some lunch and then I asked Hughie if he wanted to go to a movie. He said no. I went home checked on the kitten and fed him and then took the bus alone downton to the Avon Theatre. I had no idea what was playing. It turned out to be Fortunella, a foreign film by Eduardo De Filippo with Italian subtitles. I struggled through that, feeling rather frustrated and caught the bus back home, entered through the unlocked front door, walked down to the bedroom and checked on Panther.
And, of course, Panther was dead.
I don’t know why, but I was not expecting that. It caught me completely by surprise. I picked the little thing up and held it in one hand. Its lifeless body was still warm. I talked to it, begged it to open its eyes, but it was too late.
Suddenly, a feeling of tremendous guilt washed over me. This was my fault. I had killed the kitten by neglect.
In about three seconds, I developed a lump in my throat that made it difficult to breathe. Tears welled up in my eyes. I couldn’t control the awful feelings that had suddenly overtaken me. I gently put the dead kitten back down on the white towel in the laundry basket and ran into the bathroom to look at my reflection in the mirror. I wanted to see if this person with these dreadful feelings could possibly be me.
I suppose I had hoped that someone else was also caring for the kitten, feeding it while I was away. Maybe it was Nina or my Grandmother or my Mother after she got home from work, although I knew I had no reason to think that was the case.
It became abundantly clear to me that it was my fault. I began to sob uncontrollably to the point that my sides were actually hurting. My eyes were filled with tears and my nose was running. I went into the bathroom and got some tissue to wipe my nose. My grandmother was in her bedroom and probably wondered what was going on, but I was too ashamed to face her. Nina had gone home for the day and my parents were out. I had a very hard night.
The next day my feelings had eased somewhat although I still felt terrible. There was only one thing to do at this pont. Give the kitten a decent burial. I called up Hughie and he came over and we got shovels out of the garage and dug a shallow hole in the backyard about fifteen feet from where the kittens had been born. I put the dead kitten into an old Hellman’s mayonnaise jar whose label I had scraped off and tightened the lid. I thought that should protect him from being eaten by worms.
It was the least I could do.